In addition to watching the famous people, I've also been a food adventurer all my life. This has led to some unmitigated disasters (in which the only rational response would have been to throw the food in the bin) and some quite special and memorable concoctions. What I've learned about cooking food (from my own explorations, and from my hours of watching Food Network) is that good food starts with good ingredients and a knowledge of how those ingredients work. I think learning to cook is really about learning an ingredient - what it works with; what it's a disaster with; what makes it shine; whether it can stand alone or whether it provides good support to something else. It's the latter that I'm going to dwell on today - those special ingredients that move food from ordinary and okay, to special and interesting and exciting. They're things that all of us know about, yet few of us remember to buy, and use when we're cooking. Fresh herbs; ginger; different varieties of pepper (fresh peppers like seasoning peppers and scotch bonnet, jalapeño and chilli); nuts (pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, pecans and sunflower seeds); peppercorns - green ones, red ones, black ones; different kinds of salt (taste salt - and you'll understand that there are different varieties) lemon and lime zests (or even grapefruit and orange).
Today I was making pancakes out of the box. I'm sorry, but I've never been able to make a pancake from scratch that's as good as a pancake made from Aunt Jemima's or bisquik pancake mix. And while I've always been quite content with following the instructions on the packet to the letter, today I decided to add some lime zest to the mixture. Not too much, just about a half teaspoon. And when I tell you, those little curls of zest elevated the packet pancake to something special and elegant. It wasn't overpowering. It just teased my taste buds: here a bit, there a bit - light citrus with good butter and runny maple syrup. Yum! (I'm threatening to have pancakes for dinner too!)
I've also taken to adding a little lime juice and zest to soups and salad dressings and those things are more special and interesting for the addition.